UNHCR seeks access to North Koreans detained in China

Officials from the UN refugee agency have asked China for access to 48 North Koreans arrested while trying to leave the country by boat last Saturday, urging Beijing not to send them back to their country.

  © UNHCR/Geographic Information and Mapping Unit

BEIJING/GENEVA, Jan 21 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency's Beijing office today urged the Chinese government to give UNHCR officials access to 48 North Korean asylum seekers held since last Saturday. The 48, including children, were arrested as they tried to board fishing boats in the port of Yantai in China's Shandong province, 500 km south-east of Beijing.

In a note verbale sent to the Chinese foreign ministry, UNHCR called on China to refrain from sending the North Koreans back. The agency pointed out that China is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention that prohibits "refoulement" - sending asylum seekers back to their countries where they could face persecution.

UNHCR offered to assess the asylum claims of the North Korean asylum seekers jointly with the Chinese authorities. The agency's officials said they were worried that the group could be deported to North Korea without the chance to have their cases heard. On several occasions in the past, China had sent back North Korean asylum seekers.

According to various estimates, there are tens of thousands of North Koreans in China, mostly in areas bordering North Korea. However, for the past several years, UNHCR officials have been barred from the border area despite repeated requests for access.

The Chinese authorities describe the North Koreans as "economic migrants", claiming that none of them are refugees. UNHCR officials say some may indeed be migrants, but it is also likely that among them are refugees fleeing persecution in their country.